Another fine, fine Christmas tune.
In case you aren’t familiar with this one, it’s a vocal-free version of “Once In Royal David’s City,” originally set to music by Brit organist Henry Gauntlett.
Once in Royal David’s City is a Christmas carol originally written as a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander. The carol was first published in 1848 in her hymnbook Hymns for Little Children.
A year later, the English organist Henry Gauntlett discovered the poem and set it to music.
Henry John Gauntlett was organist at a number of London churches, including St Olave’s in Tooley Street, Southwark from 1827 to 1846, Christ Church Greyfriars and Union Chapel, Islington from 1852 to 1861. He edited many hymnbooks and wrote over a thousand hymn tunes, although his setting of “Once in Royal David’s City” to the tune of “Irby” is his most famous.
Since 1919, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the King’s College Chapel, Cambridge has begun its Christmas Eve service, with Dr Arthur Henry Mann’s arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” as the Processional hymn. Mann was organist at King’s between 1876 and 1929.
In Mann’s arrangement, the first verse is sung by a boy chorister of the college’s choir as a solo. The second verse is sung by the choir, and the congregation joins in the third verse. Excluding the first verse, the hymn is accompanied by the organ.
In The English Carol, Erik Routley notes that Mann’s unaccompanied arrangement of Gauntlett’s original hymn changes the character of the work into one which emphasises the acoustic space of the chapel: “with subtle art that arrangement turns the homely children’s hymn into a processional of immense spaciousness.”
According to the tradition of the King’s College Choir, the soloist of this hymn is usually chosen right before the performance, when the choirmaster decides whose voice is the strongest on the day, prior to the start of the broadcast.
And there you have it, folks: another great song made even more enjoyable by having a great story behind how it came to be.